The King Cake Tradition, Explained
Americans usher in the new year with diets and lifestyle resolutions galore, but many people across the globe — particularly those from predominantly Catholic countries — celebrate the calendar change with a sweet pastry known as king cake. It first appears in bakery cases at the beginning of each year and can be found at the center of celebrations through early spring. Some associate it with Mardi Gras, others with a celebration known as Epiphany.
King cake is eaten on January 6 in honor of Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, which historically marks the arrival of the three wise men/kings in Bethlehem who delivered gifts to the baby Jesus. (The plastic baby hidden inside king cakes today is a nod to this story.) King cake also appears on tables throughout the Carnival season, which runs from Epiphany to Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent), at which point practitioners typically abstain from such indulgences as cake.
The pastry goes by different names around the world, and comes in varying shapes and styles. Here now, an exploration of the history of this baked good, the traditions surrounding it, and a brief look at king cakes across the globe.
What is king cake?
A sweet, circular pastry, cake, or bread that is the centerpiece of a historically Catholic celebration known as Epiphany, which falls on January 6. Today it takes on many different forms and is found at a variety of similar celebrations with religious origins. Most Americans are likely familiar with Louisiana-style king cakes that consist of a cake-y bread dough twisted into a ring and decorated with colored icing and sprinkles. Variants can be made from cake batter or bread dough or pastry, but almost all versions are shaped into a circle or oval to mimic the appearance of a king’s crown.
Every king cake contains a trinket — often a small figurine in the shape of a baby — which plays a crucial part in the celebration of the holiday that inspired this pastry. Whomever finds the trinket in their slice of cake gets to be the “king” for a day.
Where did it originate?
King cake is said to have originated in Old World France and Spain and came to be associated with Epiphany during the Middle Ages. When it was brought to the New World (along with Catholicism and Christianity), the tradition evolved further.
In New Orleans, king cake and Mardi Gras go hand in hand: The cakes can be found starting in early January and are available up until Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. The symbolic bean or baby baked (or embedded) into the king cake is important to Mardi Gras celebrations because the person who gets the piece containing the baby must host the next year’s celebration.
How is it made?
To make it, sweet dough is twisted into a round and sometimes adorned with colored sugar doughs before being baked. Some versions are split and then filled with cream or fruit; others are topped with candied fruit, icing, and colored sugar. Louisiana-style king cake is almost always decorated in the colors associated with Mardi Gras: green, gold, and purple (representing faith, power, and justice).
Why is there a plastic baby inside my king cake?
While there’s a long history of hiding trinkets inside king cakes, the modern tradition of a small plastic baby started in New Orleans. A commercial bakery called McKenzie’s popularized the baby trinket that was baked into cakes back in the 1950s; they were originally made of porcelain but later swapped out for an easier-to-find plastic version. These days the plastic baby figurine is typically sold along with the already-baked cake and hidden by the purchaser, rather than coming baked inside (due to concerns about eating something that’s been baked around a piece of plastic).
The baby inside the king cake is such an important tradition that each year during Carnival, the New Orleans’ NBA team unveils a seasonal King Cake Baby mascot (which is absolutely terrifying, by the way).
What other countries serve king cakes?
In France, galette des rois translates literally as “cake of kings,” and is a flaky pastry cake made from puff pastry that is typically filled with a frangipane almond cream (or occasionally fruit or chocolate). A decorative pattern is scored into the top of it before baking, and sometimes the finished cake is topped with a paper crown. Traditionally, there is a “fève,” or bean, hidden inside.
The king cakes of New Orleans more closely resemble those of Spanish-speaking countries rather than the king cake that originated in France.
Rosca de reyes, served in Spain and Latin America, is a ring-shaped sweet bread that can also be topped with candied fruit, in addition to a light layer of icing.
Bolo rei, the Portuguese version of king cake, is also ring-shaped and is filled with candied fruit and sometimes nuts.
Bulgaria’s banitsa is generally served on New Year’s Eve, and also on other special occasions like weddings or festivals. It consists of sheets of phyllo dough wrapped around soft cheese and it contains charms as well as written fortunes.
The vasilopita in Greece and Cyprus is traditionally served on New Year’s Day, and closely resembles the French galette. It is round and flat with almonds on top that sometimes denote the year. Vasilopita also usually has a coin baked into it.
The common denominator between all of these cakes is that they all have a small trinket or figurine — such as a bean, a coin, a nut, or a tiny baby figurine — hidden inside. Whoever finds the trinket in their slice of cake gets to be “king” for a day and is also said to have good luck.
Where can I get my own king cake?
If you happen to be located in New Orleans, there are bakeries galore selling king cakes — whether you’re in the market for the traditional brioche ring version or something fancied up with peanut butter or bacon. Outside of Louisiana, every major city, particularly if there’s a sizable Catholic presence, will also be home to at least a couple of bakeries catering to king cake lovers this time of year.
And for those who want to go the DIY route, there are no shortage of king cake recipesonline, including quick-and-lazy variations involving canned cinnamon rolls. Just don’t forget to include the baby.